COLOMBO: On the face of it, India and the Maldives appear to be on a confrontational path. Recent actions by the Abdulla Yameen regime vis-à-vis India and the Maldivian opposition, have irked New Delhi prompting it to issue statements expressing dismay, and urging a return status quo ante for the good of the Maldives as well as the region.

But even as there are signs that relations between the two countries may be on a tailspin, the Maldivians insist that the actuality is different from the descriptions emanating from the Indian media and Indian think tanks.

A top official of the government of Maldives said that behind the scenes diplomatic efforts are on both in Male and New Delhi to sort out issues.

“Given the quiet diplomacy pursued by the two countries over decades, many things are discussed and solved outside the public gaze,” the official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said.

“We are confident that a diplomatic solution will be found,” he added.

Inadequate awareness of the nuances of issues has resulted in distorted reporting in the media, the official explained.

Taking the example of a recent report in The Hindu on the alleged delay or denial of visas to Indian workers, the official said that many in India may not know that there is always a slowdown in Maldivian offices during the fasting month of Ramzan. Backlogs pile up. There could be delays due to other factors, which may not be political at all.

The Hindu had also said that visas had been delayed since February, when India criticized the declaration of the State of Emergency in the Maldives. But the official said that if there was a slowdown it was because of the extra vigil mounted on all fronts during the Emergency and this was not directed against any country in particular.

In regard to the return of the two naval helicopters India had given to Maldives, the official said that the Maldives had in the beginning itself wanted a fixed wing aircraft like the Dornier to patrol the adjoining ocean and not choppers. He explained that given the treacherous weather over the Maldives, choppers could be tossed about badly. He recalled a couple of accidents due to adverse weather conditions to make his point.

Maldives wanted to end the choppers’ lease and go for a more suitable aircraft only when the lease was going to expire.

The official quashed a rumor in the Maldives that the Indian helicopter crews are intelligence operatives. The real issue is the suitability of helicopter for the tasks on hand, he reiterated.

The Maldivian Defense Minister had said that the country will acquire a Dornier from another source.

India Talks About Democracy Deficit

While the Indian media and think tanks have sought action against the Yameen regime for its perceived anti-Indian moves, Indian officialdom has not veered from its focus on the “democracy deficit” in the Maldives under Yameen.

India’s contention is that “a peaceful, stable and democratic Maldives is in the interest of all its neighbors and friends in the Indian Ocean region,” and that Yameen should restore democratic institutions.

Last Thursday India reiterated its “advise” to the Maldivian government “to restore the credibility of the electoral and political process by immediately releasing political prisoners including former President Gayoom and Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and creating the necessary conditions for the participation of all political forces in the Presidential Elections.”

The sentencing of these personalities without a fair trial casts doubt on the commitment of the Government of the Maldives to uphold the rule of law and will also call into question the credibility of the entire process of Presidential elections in September this year, the Indian statement said.

It recalled that since the beginning of the political crisis in the Maldives, India has “repeatedly urged the Government of the Maldives to allow all institutions, including the Supreme Court and the Parliament, to function in a free and independent manner, and to permit genuine political dialogue between all political parties.”

“This has also been the demand of the international community at large,” it added.

Think Tank’s Warning

However, the influential pro-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) think tank Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), published an article on June 13, warning the Maldives of a fitting riposte from India for its anti-Indian actions.

“Male stands to lose more than gain by distancing itself from the West and other International organizations, It must tread carefully,” the article by a staffer said.

“Maldives has made a drastic change in its foreign policy and priorities. It has steadily moved towards the Chinese umbrella of alliances and sees a bright future in that camp. While it is free to align with whichever country it deems fit, Male must not forget about its dependencies on India.”

“The Pakistani Chief of Army, Qamar Bajwa paid a three-day-visit to Maldives in end-March, 2018; in order to improve the bilateral relations between the two countries and enhance security cooperation. This was the first high level visit to Maldives after the Emergency by any country. An apparent cooperation and nexus between Male, Islamabad and Beijing against India is being speculated in strategic discourses.”

“The Government of Maldives has generally indicated a departure from Indian influence and a steady inclination towards adversaries of India,” the article said.

Pointing to India’s stakes the article said: “ It must be noted here that a large volume of India’s trade passes through the Indian Ocean and substantial international traffic through the routes right at the cusp of Maldivian lands. Chinese control over Maldives is a concern for the larger international community.”

The article then goes on to warn: “A hostile or even indifferent Indian posture can bring enormous harm to the Maldivian public and the region. Analysts believe that the Yameen Government is moving on a path of confrontation with India, apparently in pursuit of bigger ambitions through Chinese investments without realizing the overall strategic cost.”

Bringing in the circumstances which brought about a “regime change” in Sri Lanka in January 2015, when the pro-China Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was replaced by the West and India- friendly Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime, the article says: “It is also argued that the real motive behind these (Maldivian) overtures is securing China’s political support for the Yameen regime. And in this process it is even ignoring the lessons learnt from the Sri Lankan experience.”

This is followed by the punch line: “And here is the Analysts also maintain that India is unlikely to compromise with its strategic space and any extra-regional threat emanating through Maldives. In that event India may feel compelled to redesign its options.”

Denial of Visas to Indians

Meanwhile, The Hindu quoted Jane’s 360 to say that the Maldives had declined to renew the visas of the Indian pilots and the dozen or so technicians responsible for the Indian helicopters’ maintenance.

The paper also said that the Maldives Immigration Authority has held up thousands of work permits to Indians.,

Though the official Indian stand is that giving or withholding visas is a country’s prerogative, Indian officials unofficially admitted to the Chennai-based daily that thousands of Indians face a squeeze on their work permits from the Maldivian government and that there appears to be a “strict directive” from the Maldivian President’s office against work permits to Indians, as well as against facilitating other requests from Indian companies there,” The Hindu said.